Flawed Leaders: how does parity affect North America’s international aspirations?

Weak, flawed, and inconsistent leadership is a familiar topic in North America these days, but leaving politics aside, a similar concept applies to the NA LCS. League-wide parity continues to reign, partly due to underappreciated strengths within the bottom teams but also due to underdiscussed vulnerabilities among the frontrunners, including the two teams currently tied for first, Team SoloMid and Cloud9.

Best-against-best competition is on the not-too-distant horizon; it’s time for the NA LCS’s top teams to start patching their holes. Parity might be a sign that North America simply doesn’t have a shining-star representative ready for the international stage at the Mid-Season Invitational, but it could also be a crucible that purifies the leaders, exposing their weaknesses and forcing them to improve.

Narrowing the Gap

For North America, 2016’s regular seasons were characterized by runaway leaders. The Immortals dominated spring with a 17-1 record, while Team SoloMid bulldozed their way through the league’s first best-of-three season and produced a 35-6 game record in summer. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, so far in spring 2017, there is no Immortals or TSM equivalent: TSM and C9 share the lead with 10-2 series records, but their game records feature plenty of losses, and gold metrics such as gold spent percentage difference (GSPD) show they aren’t far out of reach.

NA LCS Regular Season Parity

Split Highest Win % Highest GSPD Lowest Win % Lowest GSPD
2015 Summer 74% +12.7% 17% -12.1%
2016 Spring 94% +18.7% 22% -10.3%
2016 Summer 86% +9.7% 19% -8.1%
2017 Spring 72% +3.8% 30% -4.7%

Note: Regular season data only. Spring 2017 data includes weeks one to six.

For comparison, TSM’s league-leading +3.8% GSPD would have ranked them only fourth in that statistic last summer. Meanwhile in Europe and Korea, win rates and GSPDs are as top-heavy as ever, with G2 Esports and SK Telecom T1 sporting +9.1% and +12.6% GSPDs, respectively. Compared to the past, when teams like Echo Fox, Dignitas, Team Dragon Knights, and Enemy were stumbling their way through games, there are no free wins in the NA LCS this split. There are no free losses, either: both C9 and TSM have struggled with consistent issues that have cost them games and prevented them from taking firm hold of first place.

Team SoloMid’s Initiation Inconsistencies

TSM’s main weakness is an oldie but a goodie, a familiar idea that continues to plague them with Jason “WildTurtle” Tran at AD carry rather than Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng but is perhaps now a bit more noticeable. At core, TSM’s issue is an over-reliance on their opponents making mistakes, especially in the mid and late game.

TSM can achieve great things when their enemies give them an opening. Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen provides some of the clearest examples: if the enemy jungler drops the ball, as in game three against Phoenix1 back in week 3, Svenskeren does a great job of snowballing and asserting himself, especially as a damage carry in team fights. We saw the same thing from Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell this past week, when he picked up two early kills from a botched Dignitas tower dive and used that boost to stomp all over the rest of the game.

The problem comes when TSM aren’t handed those kinds of mistakes to exploit. At times, TSM can slip into passivity in the mid and late game, playing very patiently and waiting for the game to come to them. Hauntzer and Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg are capable enough split pushers, but when it comes to combat TSM prefer to operate as a five-man unit most of the time. That has resulted in a relatively low combined kills per minute (CKPM) and relatively high kill participation numbers across their roster.

This approach works great when the enemy is willing to make the first move, allowing TSM to react and punish. Reactive team fighting is a potent weapon, especially in a meta that features so many poke and siege champions and so few of the initiating supports that were once dominant. But passive, pressure-based play can also backfire if a) the enemy’s playmaking is good enough, b) your players commit too many individual mistakes and give away free kills that dispel your pressure, or c) you fail to get a gold lead and map control in the first place.

Enemy playmaking isn’t an issue for TSM that often. North America as a whole has a longstanding initiation problem, and the current support meta has weakened the trigger fingers of some of the region’s best playmakers. And while individual mistakes have been an issue in some games for TSM, that hasn’t plagued them to the extent we might have feared given WildTurtle’s struggles in 2016.

It’s the third condition that has had the biggest impact on TSM’s spring: with WildTurtle replacing Doublelift, TSM’s early game has simply been less dominant than it once was. In summer 2016, TSM enjoyed an average +7.1 CSD10 and +315 GD10 at AD carry. This split, WildTurtle is performing better than anticipated, but his +0.7/+34 CSD/GD10 isn’t quite Doublelift-tier.

Last split, TSM didn’t have to flex their comeback muscles very often. With an average gold lead of 1,615 at 15 minutes, TSM could dictate their opponents’ every move in the mid game, using tower and Baron pressure to force favourable team fights. TSM very rarely threw the first punch in a fight unless it was guaranteed to connect.

This split, TSM are averaging the fourth-best early-game rating in the NA LCS, with +338 GD15. Since they have fewer and smaller leads to play with, their mid-game macro and team fighting are being tested more often. They’ve passed those tests well enough to be tied for first place, but we’ve seen enough fumbles and losses to notice their discomfort, and to wonder what might happen against tough international opponents.

One of the symptoms of that discomfort is TSM’s difference in results when Hauntzer is playing tanks or carries in the top lane. On tanks, Hauntzer can be the primary initiator, a role he has filled admirably. When Hauntzer is playing a carry, though, the initiation burden falls on the rest of the team, who haven’t handled the task quite as adeptly.

TSM’s issues with proactivity and initiation are subtle and deeply engrained, but we’ve seen improvement over the course of the season. Their shot calling and macro is becoming more consistent, and TSM are helping themselves by being the first to set up around objectives like the dragon pit, which creates favourable fights. TSM still need to cut down on some of their individual positioning mistakes and develop more overall consistency in their team fighting, vision control, and mid-game lane management, but due to Hauntzer’s continued growth as an on-the-Rift leader, proactive initiations are no longer an all-around problem area, just a place where TSM need to find more flexibility and confidence.

Cloud9’s Underwhelming Early Game

While TSM’s issues are subtle and related largely to play style and consistency, Cloud9’s problem points are easier to identify and, perhaps, harder to fix. Broadly speaking, Cloud9’s problem is their early game. Despite wielding so much skill throughout their roster, Cloud9 are only averaging a +28 GD15, and are seventh in early-game rating.

More narrowly speaking, Cloud9’s problem is their jungler’s early game.

Contractz’ Early-Game Jungling Stats

Statistic Value Rank
GD10 -78 10/11
XPD10 -84 8/11
FB% 28% 9/11
K+A10 1.0 7/11

Ranks include junglers with 10+ games played.

Juan “Contractz” Arturo Garcia entered the LCS this split as part of a crop of exciting young domestic junglers who seemed to be taking the league by storm, alongside Echo Fox’s Matthew “Akaadian” Higginbotham, Phoenix1’s sophomore Rami “Inori” Charagh, and Flyquest’s still-inexperienced journeyman Galen “Moon” Holgate. But despite having the full force of the “NA talent” narratives behind them, every one of those four players has been regressing to the mean, for various reasons.

For Contractz, the signs were there from beginning. Of all the teams in North America, Cloud9 have been giving Contractz the most consistent opportunities to take over the early game: Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen leads all mid laners with +6.7 CSD10, Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong’s +3.5 is third among top laners, and Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi’s +2.9 is second among AD carries. Literally no other team in the league boasts that much early strength across all three lanes. Cloud9 should be a jungler’s paradise, granting Contractz freedom to enter the river and enemy jungle at will with guaranteed support from his teammates, and creating endless deep-warding and tower-diving opportunities.

Instead, Contractz regularly falls behind in farm and relies too often on solo queue-style high-risk, high-reward aggression to make his presence felt. This style results in highlight reels and memorable carry performances, but also many less-memorable costs such as being counterjungled and warded out, suffering persistent experience deficits, and giving up unnecessary deaths that stall his team’s momentum.

The current jungle meta has helped Contractz avoid too much punishment. Champions like Kha’zix and Rengar are okay with falling a little behind early so long as their team sets them up for kills later on, which aligns well with Contractz’ personal power curve. But we haven’t seen real evidence that Contractz can expand beyond carries: he’s put in 24 games on Kha’zix, Graves, Lee Sin, and Rengar, with just five games combined on Ivern (3-1) and Rek’Sai (0-1). If the meta shifts towards tanks and control-oriented champions, Contractz’ pathing weaknesses may be highlighted more clearly.

It’s not fair, of course, to say that Contractz is an all-around weak jungler. He deserves credit for his ability to find openings to carry with damage, a skill some more established veteran junglers struggle with. But to live up to the level of his teammates, Contractz needs to keep refining his efficiency in the early game, reduce his risk levels, make better use of the map setups granted his strong laners, and generally find ways to be more consistent.

International Implications

Domestic competition is compelling and exciting, and parity heightens that excitement. It’s less fun to watch a game when you’re pretty sure you know in advance who is going to win. We’re in the middle of one of the most entertaining regular seasons in NA LCS history, and parity is one of the main reasons why. But on a larger scale, international results are what matter most: the whole world comes together in anticipation of region-against-region, best-against-best events. Those are exactly the events where North America has struggled to have an impact.

From a certain perspective, the parity in the NA LCS might bode poorly for upcoming international competition like the Mid-Season Invitational in May. Only one team is able to attend from each region, which suggests that North America would be better off focusing as much as of its strength as possible into a single dominant team. That line of thought, however, has not paid off in the past, because when success comes too often and too easy, improvement does not necessarily follow.

Earlier, I mentioned some dominant teams from the two previous NA LCS seasons, the spring Immortals and the summer TSM. You may have already considered the end results both teams achieved following their successful regular seasons. The Immortals failed to reach the North American finals, finding themselves punished and exploited for their lack of flexibility. TSM did earn the summer trophy, but at the World Championships they finally met a reasonable level of opposition to their laning, were unable to generate the early gold leads they were accustomed to, and found themselves unprepared to mount repeated mid-game comebacks.

The high level of parity in the NA LCS this split has the potential to prevent more outcomes like the spring Immortals or summer TSM. It hasn’t been possible for either team to coast through the split on skill alone, or on a narrow pool of strategies. Cloud9 have had their early game exploited often enough to recognize their need for change. TSM have struggled enough with flexibility and proactivity that they can clearly identify specific ways to grow.

The painful process of self-improvement has been visible for both teams to some extent, though more for TSM. Cloud9 have experimented with using Jeon “Ray” Ji-won in the top lane, though it’s unclear how that benefits their early game play or coordination with their jungler. TSM have continued to draft Hauntzer onto a mix of tanks and carries, prioritizing Ashe for WildTurtle to round out their compositions when necessary and at other times shifting initiation tools into Biofrost’s or Bjergsen’s hands with Ekko, Thresh, or Braum picks.

There is no room for either TSM or Cloud9 to settle into just one or two win-now strategies. The playoffs are just a few weeks away, and MSI lies beyond. The bigger the stage, the more likely it is that your weaknesses will be exposed, and the more costly that exposure becomes.

Photo courtesy flickr.com/lolesports

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